Sept/Oct 2008

Ask the Expert: What are Five Key Things to Consider When Deciding Whether to Build Your Own Web Applications?

by Watt Hamlett, Solutions Engineer, Convio

Let's say you're on staff at a nonprofit organization that wants to do something new online: start or enhance an email marketing program, raise more money, enable event registration, manage content more effectively, or create a community. At some point in the process, if your organization is like many others, the question may occur to you, "Is this something we should build ourselves?"

Years ago, organizations that wanted such web applications had few options other than to build the tools themselves. But today, options abound — from single-function, stand-alone solutions (for things like email or ecommerce) and customizable open source options to Software-as-a-Service solutions (such as Convio) in which multiple online functions are integrated into a single hosted package.

I have worked both on staff and as a custom application developer for organizations that have chosen to take the custom-built route, with varying degrees of success. Below are what I believe are a few of the key factors to consider when thinking about your online needs and evaluating whether a custom-built solution is the right choice for your organization.

1. Mission

What is your organization's mission? Realistically, is custom software development something you should be tackling? Are your needs so unique that you have to build your own applications rather than take advantage of something already available? (Hint: Your needs probably are not as unique as you think!)

2. Goals

When you have an immediate need or a great idea for doing something new online, it's often tempting to address it in isolation, separate from other organizational needs and activities. It is better to take a step back and define your ultimate goals around your organization's online efforts. If you skip this step, then you may end up with silos of activities that meet your organization's functional needs, but are administratively cumbersome and don't help you gain a holistic view of constituent relationships.

3. Expertise

Although tools and resources exist today that make it possible for even non-programmers to create interactive web functionality, designing and building a solid, secure, scalable application is another matter. Do your IT staff and your executives have a clear understanding of what is required to develop and maintain software? Are you prepared to resource this process sufficiently for as long as you have your application? Beyond developing the application, are you equipped to address capacity issues such as hosting, uptime, security, scalability, email deliverability, and integration with other systems?

4. Change

As technology and the web evolve, so do user expectations. How will your solution hold up over time? Will it be easy (or even possible) for you to keep up with the pace? If you are successful in your online initiatives, will your application be able to handle increased traffic and activity? As your organization's needs change, and as staff members come and go, will you be able to commit the resources necessary for the software development lifecycle?

5. Cost

When considering a custom-built solution, you should take into account costs for not only the initial development and subsequent implementation of the application, but also for ongoing testing, support, documentation, bug fixes, enhancements, integration, etc. And then, you need to consider opportunity costs. For example, if it takes longer to build something custom, then what opportunities are you missing while you wait? Are you losing opportunities by directing resources to build and maintain software, rather than having them focus on using the software to drive strategic results?

Of course there are many other considerations beyond just these five. But, I hope that considering these basic factors will give you a clearer sense of whether a do-it-yourself approach is the right direction for your organization.

I would love to hear your thoughts or experiences around working through these issues in your organization. Share them with me via email: whamlett@convio.com.

Ask the Expert: What are Five Key Things to Consider When Deciding Whether to Build Your Own Web Applications? | Convio